Energy recovery can contribute to a more sustainable Europe

In the energy crisis that Europe currently is facing, the importance of energy recovery is more recognized than ever. But if WtE is to play a more important role in the green transition, we need to overcome a number of obstacles.

By Ralf Schöpwinkel, COO at Geminor

Energy recovery is currently receiving more attention than ever, mostly as a result of an energy crisis in Europe – a crisis we have not seen the likes of in 50 years. When energy becomes in short supply, and prices go up, so does the importance of efficient WtE plants. The current situation is also reminding us that EfW is here to stay, and as such needs to be part of a sustainable solution.

Another reason for the importance of energy recovery is the fact that we are not yet able to utilize the majority of the waste for mechanical or chemical recycling. The volumes of residual waste are still large and in need of a sustainable deposit. So, while energy recovery is still regarded as the „unpopular cousin” of material recycling, it contributes significantly by creating energy in the form of electricity, industrial steam, and district heating for many companies and households around Europe. Solid-recovered fuel (SRF) is also increasingly used as an alternative fuel in the production of cement, a sustainable development for one of the world’s most CO2-polluting industries. Hence, energy recovery is proving more important than ever in the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

Energy recovery is growing in Europe, and several plants are under construction. In Germany, which has the highest rate of energy recovery in Europe, 26 million tonnes of waste are converted to energy each year. In the next three years, this will be increased by another 1 million tonnes, as new facilities are ready for use. Due to this growth, Germany will have to increase its imports of RDF and SRF.

The UK will also be experiencing a growth in WtE capacity in the years to come. In its annual report, the consulting company Tolvik estimates an increase in British WtE production of over four million tonnes per year, to 19.4 million tonnes by 2026.

Logistics and capacity

Factors such as efficiency, taxation, and logistics are central to improving energy recovery in the future. Many of the challenges facing the recovery industry are primarily due to an imbalance in the waste market in Europe. At present, Northern Europe and Scandinavia have the highest WtE capacity, while Southern Europe generally lacks both the capacity to incinerate its own waste and the willingness to pay for it. In order to prevent residual waste from ending up in landfill, we need to facilitate more effective export and transport to plants in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

In addition, and due to a larger production of industrial steam and district heating, the WtE plants in Northern Europe are significantly more efficient than the plants just producing electricity. In the long run, sustainable development of energy recovery will depend on more facilities in Europe being developed to offer steam and district heating.

SRF in production. Foto: Johny Kristensen

Transport challenges

The existing logistics challenges are not only about the shortage of drivers and increased transport costs, but also about the lack of sufficient infrastructure. A “green” rail transport through Europe is dependent on necessary upgrades and EU coordination. A more efficient flow of waste between countries will also depend on a quicker development within digitalization, and a less rigid bureaucracy.

There are differing opinions on the effect of taxation – and who should be taxed – to reduce emissions from the recovery of waste in Europe. Price-sensitive tools such as quota trading – ETS (EU Emissions Trading System) will in any case be able to help push energy recovery towards the use of more sustainable, biogenic fuels. The more expensive it becomes to emit CO2, the greater the incentive to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) or other solutions at the WtE plants.

The EU is presently considering the possibility of introducing ETS for all member states by 2026. In Germany, work is even underway to introduce targeted CO2 taxation as early as January next year.

It is a fact that a substantial part of European waste still goes to landfill, and as such produces considerable tonnes of CO2e-emissions into the atmosphere. Despite the EU’s steps toward a more circular and sustainable future, we are a long way from being able to handle the majority of our waste in a responsible and efficient way – namely as a resource. A less bureaucratic, more predictable and open market for energy recovery will assist in bringing the EU closer to its sustainability goals.

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